The Fault in Their Stars

Anna Dorn’s second novel, Exalted, is a Gemini of a book.

exalted, anna dorn
Unnamed Press

I don’t know how to read a person’s astrological chart, but I do know this: I was born on Tuesday, June 7, in the late 1980s in Los Angeles. Anna Dorn’s second novel, Exalted, was launched on Tuesday, June 7, of this year, also in Los Angeles. Despite these commonalities, the only thing our charts have in common is our Gemini sun. Still, it’s enough for me to feel like maybe this coincidence is, as it were, exalted: a cohesive arrangement of moving parts, the universe’s way of illustrating that this book and I are a match made, quite literally, by the stars.

You don’t need to believe in astrology to enjoy Exalted, although you do have to understand what it feels like to look for meaning in places where you know it probably doesn’t make sense to look. You have to understand the allure of being offered a better reality than the one you currently inhabit. A horoscope presents possibilities that seem within reach because all they require is that you harness certain qualities you already possess, which suggests some mechanism of control over the chaos of the universe.

As Dawn—a single mother and waiter whose drinking and anger get in the way of every relationship in her life—explains, “This is exactly what I needed, confirmation that my current issues have nothing to do with me. It’s everyone else who has the problem. I am powerful and psychic, a lion and a witch.”

Appropriately enough, Dorn’s Gemini novel is two-faced: its dual narrators, Dawn and an aspiring actor named Emily, operate as opposing sides of a particularly jaded coin. It’s hard to tell whether Dawn is the middle-aged version of Emily or Emily is the millennial version of Dawn. Both women find themselves stuck in lives they didn’t imagine, seemingly unable to tap into their potential. Since Emily hasn’t broken through as a performer, she runs an astrology-meme account on Instagram with which Dawn is obsessed, although she has no idea who’s behind it.

“She probably gets a lot of DMs,” Dawn imagines of her counterpart. “Maybe she will look at my profile and think I’m sexy. Maybe we will fall in love. Maybe she will take me to the French Riviera.” The women are slightly annoying, straddling the line between aspirational and delusional, but in a relatable way. As a broke millennial myself, I recognize Emily’s somewhat nihilist approach to surviving the chaotic hellscape previous generations have left us. I want her to get her shit together, to eat literally anything other than packaged turkey slices for every meal, to stop creating elaborate lies that seem more and more impossible to get away with.

But also, I get it.

Gemini suns are known for being full of contradictions: We are superficial but great communicators. We’re the life of the party, but we can also easily go too far. Exalted remains true to such a vibe. It is superficial in a good way, almost like reality TV—all astrological lingo, characters making bad or weird choices, getting into all sorts of unnecessary drama. Yet beneath the astrology and drunk texting and social media, this is very clearly a story about identity: how you see yourself, how others see you, how the version of you in reality measures up to the version in your head, how something like a horoscope can reinforce or alter all of this, even if you don’t entirely believe in it.

Each character here has multiple identities: Emily, with her meme account and the professional life she’s fabricated for her parents; Dawn, who lies about her age; Beau Rubidoux, Emily’s crush, who has changed his name to hide part of his past; and Cinnamon, a strip club dancer who performs a certain role for her customers. Even Emily’s father is, as we find out, not entirely who he seems.

Dorn’s Gemini book is fun to read, the prose so quick and light that it paints the characters’ behavior as almost charming, mostly because the tone reassures us that everyone is going to make it out OK even as Emily’s lies grow more complex and Dawn’s drinking more erratic. As for the flip side, the novel’s final twist may be a vibe killer for some, and yet, Dorn owns it. She never tries to dial things down or bring us back from this wild ride. Instead, she leans into it—and so do we.

Exalted will probably not change your mind about astrology one way or the other, but as a Gemini, it doesn’t care. “The point is,” Emily tells us, “astrology isn’t real. It is merely a framework through which to view the universe. It is a language. And I have continued to use that language, despite my lack of belief, because it makes people (myself included) less frightening to me.”

As I was reading, I found myself treating the book almost like a horoscope. Did I see myself reflected in any of the characters? Was I relating to them because I wanted to, or because part of me needed to do so at this point in my life? Maybe it’s one and maybe it’s the other. Or maybe, as a Gemini, I will make anything about me, which, as much as I’d like to blame the stars, probably isn’t entirely their fault.•

Unnamed Press
EXALTED, BY ANNA DORN
Unnamed Press Bookshop.org
$25.11
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